Devotees of junkscience.com are probably very familiar with the scientific limitations of epidemiology Epidemiology is statistics–not science. In the distant past, epidemiology was somewhat useful in identifying causative factors for a number of infectious diseases. However, attempts to extend the application of epidemiological techniques to the ubiquitous degenerative diseases such as atherosclerosis and cancer have been abject failures.
But there is one modern disease that seemed to be tailor-made for epidemiological investigation. In the 1980s previously healthy young and middle-aged homosexual men began coming down with a mysterious illness and dying in large numbers. The illness was characterized by a complex of opportunistic infectious diseases that are normally found in people with compromised immune systems. It was labeled Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome and abbreviated AIDS. As the number of cases multiplied, it soon became apparent that the disease was almost entirely confined to a very small slice of the population–namely homosexual men who engaged in promiscuous sex and some intravenous drug users. A small number of people were also thought to have contracted the disease from blood transfusions. But mostly it was epidemic in urban settings where large numbers of homosexual men lived and engaged in increasingly promiscuous sexual activity in bath houses and other places that had rarely existed prior to the widespread “coming out of the closet” by large numbers of people in the homosexual communities of many major cities. Critics of these sorts of activities were dismissed as homophobes and told that these practices were just part of an “alternative life style”.
So here we had a disorder that was highly correlated with specific life style factors and thus, seemingly made to order for epidemiological investigation. But it was not to be. In what seemed to be an increasingly common trend in the latter part of the 20th century, political correctness trumped science. People were told that the cause was a specific virus named HIV and that the disease would eventually cross over to the general population in epidemic fashion. Condoms were promoted as vitally important in order to restrict the spread of the disease and, in short order, we were treated to the spectacle of young children in the public schools being trained to place condoms on cucumbers or other fruits or vegetables as part of their regular curriculum. Those who hypothesized that lifestyle factors figured prominently in the causation of this disease were ridiculed and smeared as homophobes and heretics. Thus, in one of the greatest ironies in medical history, the same people who tried to tie cancers and heart disease to risk factors related to lifestyle refused to apply the same analysis in the investigation of AIDS.
Of course none of the dire predictions about the disease spreading to the general population ever came to pass. Heterosexual spread was nonexistent. Even prostitutes who engaged in frequent sexual activity with a large number of people remained free of the disease except for a some of those who also used intravenous drugs. A number of leading scientists such as Peter Duesberg wrote articles questioning the theory linking HIV to AIDS. These scientists were shunned and ostracized from the respectable academic community for their heresy. These attitudes continue to this day and those that blame lifestyle factors and/or question the HIV/AIDS nexus are accused of homophobia and labeled as AIDS or HIV “deniers”. Sound familiar?
Note to commenters: My purpose here is not to start and endless string of debate on the subject of AIDS and HIV where many unresolved questions remain. Rather it is simply to point out the tragic irony that victims (and potential future victims) of this horrible disease are denied the possible benefits of thorough epidemiological investigation in one of the rare instances that it might have been useful. And denied for reasons that have nothing to do with science. The ultimate irony is that many of these selective epidemiology deniers are the same people that enthusiastically apply these methods of investigation in areas where they never have and never will have any success.